David Bailey is an iconic British fashion and portrait photographer. His first photograph was published in Vogue in 1960, and today, he is 72 years old and still going strong. His career has spanned five decades, including work for almost every major fashion publication (British, American and Italian Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and GQ, just to name a few), respected portrait and documentary photography, directing commercials, and directing and producing documentaries. He has had numerous exhibitions and awards and has published 23 books.
Bailey’s career thrived during the “Swingin’ Sixties” in London and he is most well-known for his photographs produced during this time, notably those of icons such as Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Mia Farrow, The Beatles and Mick Jagger. He was one of the first “celebrity photographers” and he became almost as famous for his personal life as for his work. He had a fresh and irreverent approach to fashion photography and stirred up the fashion department at Vogue, where the implicit sexuality in his photographs was at odds with the polished, “Society girl” aesthetic of the day. He once said, “A Bailey woman has a distinct look. A Bailey woman is a real woman of flesh and blood and sex.”
Bailey’s style has remained consistent over the years. “I’ve always tried to do pictures that don’t date,” he says. “I always go for simplicity.” His style is simple and dramatic. In his portrait photography, the subject is the most important thing to him. "The pictures I take are simple and direct and about the person I'm photographing and not about me. I spend more time talking to the person than I do taking pictures. The pictures are over in minutes. I've had models cry because they think they're no good, because I've only done one roll. They'll say, "What's wrong?" and I say, "Nothing's wrong. We got it." I don't care about composition or anything like that. I just want the emotion of the person in the picture to come across.... to get something from that person."
In the past 50 years Bailey has held steadfast to the way in which he take pictures: Black-and-white, minimalist, very graphic with high contrasts between lighter and darker tones. He has shot on a variety of formats. "I take the same approach today as I did when I started. I've always hated silly pictures and gimmicks."
“This sounds conceited, but I think one of the reasons I didn't go out of fashion is because I was never fashionable. I never really had a "style." My pictures are not about a technique. I take the same picture now that I did in '60. I have stuck to my guns... I have always tried to make women look beautiful… Fashion, beauty is aspirational.”
Jean Shrimpton, 1962
This is one of my favorite Bailey photographs. Jean Shrimpton is often referred to as the “world’s first supermodel”. Shrimpton and Bailey met in the early ‘60’s and jump-started each other’s careers, becoming one of the most famous model-photographer duos in fashion photography ever. They became personally involved and had a four year relationship and he shot countless beautiful images of her. Personally, I love this photo because of how effortlessly glamorous it feels. It seems as if Shrimpton was just captured walking down the street, in downtown New York, being young and beautiful and fashionable and carefree. I personally have a thing for reflections in photographs, so I love how her silhouette is captured in the puddle, making the photo so much more interesting and dynamic. The picture has great leading lines in the sidewalk and natural framing for the silhouette by the buildings.
Catherine Deneuve, 1967
This portrait of Catherine Deneuve, the stunning French actress (and Bailey’s second wife!), is one of his most well-known photographs. This photo is really indicative of Bailey’s style – black & white, minimalistic, and high contrast – and the viewer is drawn in immediately to the subject, most especially, her eyes. I like this photo because of the wonderful composition and framing – the curves of the flamingo and Deneuve’s head give it such a nice “flow.” I also like the juxtaposition between the absurdity of the photograph and the simplicity of it. Even though there’s a flamingo in the frame (which adds a sense of fun and playfulness, important in fashion photography), there’s never any doubt that Deneuve is the subject of this photo. This picture just has a great 60’s fashion vibe to it. It’s fun and classic. I would hang it on my wall.
Mick Jagger, 1964
I am fascinated by this photo of Mick Jagger by Bailey and can’t stop looking at it. This photo really showcases Bailey’s talent for portraiture and capturing his subject. When I first saw this photo, I didn’t even recognize that it was Mick Jagger, but found myself thinking, “What an interesting boy he looks like, I’d like to know him.” Despite the fur hood that takes over the photograph a bit, the viewer is still drawn right away to the subject’s eyes, which have a bit of a “little boy lost” look in them (and also his lips, which look luscious!) The tight framing works well here and the high contrast gives a very dramatic feel. For a rockstar as huge as Mick Jagger, who has had thousands of photographs taken of him over decades, this image still feels entirely unique. The vulnerability captured here is my favorite thing about the photograph.